I’ve seen a lot of stuff in the media recently, & heard a lot of stuff from people that I care about, that makes me believe that this post is necessary. This will be a serious post. It deals with something I’ve come up against again & again throughout my life: the discrimination against, & specific oppression of, those with disabilities. I think it is important to state, from the start, that there are differences in the ways that I have experienced this to, say, some1 in a wheelchair. My experience has been solely through the medium of mental health discrimination. It is also important to say that there are those doing some fantastic work on this, notably Black Triangle.
In Capitalist society, alongside the general oppression & exploitation through waged-labour, there exist several specific forms of oppression. Each of these takes on a different character: racism, for instance, is the national reflection of the oppression of other nations within Imperialist countries Each of these forms of oppression – racism, sexism, discrimination against those with disabilities – serves a specific ideological purpose for the bourgeoisie, & stems from a different economic & societal need of Capital. To understand the root of these forms of oppression, rather than merely their surface characteristics, 1 must have an understanding of the economic processes beneath them. This is an absolute necessity for a revolutionary & for the proletariat. If 1 does not understand these process, 1 does not understand the enemy – which is Capitalism itself – & can, therefore, never emerge victorious.
‘ Rent, interest, and industrial profit are only different names for different parts of the surplus value of the commodity, or the unpaid labour enclosed in it, and they are equally derived from this source and from this source alone. They are not derived from land as such or from capital as such, but land and capital enable their owners to get their respective shares out of the surplus value extracted by the employing capitalist from the labourer.’
The ‘source’ which Marx is referring to above is that unpaid labour of a worker. The quote has been chosen to highlight a fundamental understanding of Marxism, that human labour is the source, the absolute & only source, of surplus value (which manifests as profit, rent etc). On this, I shall elaborate briefly, so that the reader is familiar with the general equation. The Capitalist owns Capital – generally conceived of as money, but also including private property etc – & has as their aim the expansion of this Capital, the attaining of profit. In order to do this, the Capitalist must generally (meaning in abstract & for the purposes of demonstration) produce some form of commodity, ‘the economic cell of capitalist society’. A commodity is composed of 2 things: raw materials & dead labour (Marx describes this as ‘congealed’ in Capital). Raw materials may be obtained from the natural world, bought & sold etc. They form the 1st part of the Capitalist’s investment. The 2nd part which, as we have already stated, is the sole source of the Capitalist’s profit takes the form of human labour. This, the Capitalist buys from a worker in the form of wages. In order to understand where profit, or surplus value, arises from, 1 must have an understanding of the exploitation necessary, otherwise we might suppose that the Capitalist sells the commodity at a price above its value, or perhaps some equally absurd & incorrect premise. Part of the wage-labour is unpaid. Marx is very clear on this, even to the point of utilising block capitals:
‘The value of a commodity is determined by the total quantity of labour contained in it. But part of that quantity of labour is realized in a value for which and equivalent has been paid in the form of wages; part of it is realized in a value for which NO equivalent has been paid. Part of the labour contained in the commodity is paid labour; part is unpaid labour. By selling, therefore, the commodity at its value, that is, as the crystallization of the total quantity of labour bestowed upon it, the capitalist must necessarily sell it at a profit. He sells not only what has cost him an equivalent, but he sells also what has cost him nothing, although it has cost his workman labour. The cost of the commodity to the capitalist and its real cost are different things.’ (Marx, Value, Price and Profit)
Ergo, surplus value is taken from the exploitation of waged labour, through the invisible oppression of unpaid labour. This & this alone. Already, 1 might be starting to understand the consequence of a disability to workers. However, before we go into any further detail, I wish to highlight a further concept within Marx’s work which will provide a fuller illumination: the intensity & increasing intensity of labour. The quote below is dense, difficult & warrants a period of study. It is important to understand this conception if we are to understand the oppression of disabled people.
‘It is self-evident, that in proportion as the use of machinery spreads, and the experience of a special class of workmen habituated to machinery accumulates, the rapidity and intensity of labour increase as a natural consequence. Thus in England, during half a century, lengthening of the working-day went hand in hand with increasing intensity of factory labour. Nevertheless the reader will clearly see, that where we have labour, not carried on by fits and starts, but repeated day after day with unvarying uniformity, a point must inevitably be reached, where extension of the working-day and intensity of the labour mutually exclude one another, in such a way that lengthening of the working-day becomes compatible only with a lower degree of intensity, and a higher degree of intensity, only with a shortening of the working-day. So soon as the gradually surging revolt of the working-class compelled Parliament to shorten compulsorily the hours of labour, and to begin by imposing a normal working-day on factories proper, so soon consequently as an increased production of surplus-value by the prolongation of the working-day was once for all put a stop to, from that moment capital threw itself with all its might into the production of relative surplus-value, by hastening on the further improvement of machinery. At the same time a change took place in the nature of relative surplus-value. Generally speaking, the mode of producing relative surplus-value consists in raising the productive power of the workman, so as to enable him to produce more in a given time with the same expenditure of labour. Labour-time continues to transmit as before the same value to the total product, but this unchanged amount of exchange-value is spread over more use-value; hence the value of each single commodity sinks. Otherwise, however, so soon as the compulsory shortening of the hours of labour takes place. The immense impetus it gives the development of productive power, and to economy in the means of production, imposes on the workman increased expenditure of labour in a given time, heightened tension of labour-power, and closer filling up of the pores of the working-day, or condensation of labour to a degree that is attainable only within the limits of the shortened working-day. This condensation of a greater mass of labour into a given period thenceforward counts for what it really is, a greater quantity of labour. In addition to a measure of its extension, i.e., duration, labour now acquires a measure of its intensity or of the degree of its condensation or density. The denser hour of the ten hours’ working-day contains more labour, i.e., expended labour-power. than the more porous hour of the twelve hours’ working-day. The product therefore of one of the former hours has as much or more value than has the product of 1 1/5 of the latter hours. Apart from the increased yield of relative surplus-value through the heightened productiveness of labour, the same mass of value is now produced for the capitalist say by 3 1/3 hours of surplus-labour, and 6 2/3 hours of necessary labour, as was previously produced by four hours of surplus-labour and eight hours of necessary labour.’
To the Capitalist, the ideal worker is therefore able to sell their labour power, & equally able to increase the intensity of the labour worked within the hours employed ad infinitum. Such a worker, clearly, does not exist. There are, however, generally accepted levels of what we shall, spitefully, refer to as “ability”. What we are, instead, presented with when the worker suffers from a disability which may either lower the productivity, or intensity, of their work, or prevent them from working at all, is a worker who is undesirable, of less or no use, to the Capitalist.
The logical conclusion of this is that the Capitalist would wish to dispose of these workers, as 1 can clearly see in the manner in which fascists treat those with disabilities [note: the quotations in the linked article are useful; the article itself mainly obscures the point]. However, under the normal circumstances of Capitalism & its development, this is too overt & could potentially spark spontaneous resistance amongst the proletariat. It is only in extreme circumstances that a “cull”, like that committed by the Nazi Party, might occur. To be clear, the consistent discrimination against the disabled during the brief periods of Capitalist stability is an expression of the position of disabled workers in the process of producing surplus-value. However, the concessions offered in the form of benefits & subsistence in these periods is the result of a social limit. With the working-class bought off by the breadcrumbs of Imperialist conquest, it would seem utterly unthinkable to many people that their disabled relatives, their disabled friends would be persecuted, or left to fend for subsistence in the dominant wage-labour market. Thus, Capitalist “benevolence” & seemingly progressive policies are brought into play as a means of obscuring the actual processes of Capitalism.
Another reason for Capitalism’s maintenance of the oppression of disabled people, the reason why its media & arts perpetuate the stereotypical, discriminatory images of disabled human-beings, is the form of support which the state is forced to offer disabled people by societal pressures, by a need to appear as if it is not oppressive. By offering disabled people a means of subsistence outside of the wage-labour market, 1 which must be based upon need, a threat is posed to the wage-labour exchange itself: ‘Both refugees and disabled people make needs-based claims for support, which poses an implicit threat to the dominance of wage labour as the only acceptable condition for support’
I want now to turn to a consideration of “mental illness”, a banner term for specific disabilities. Rather than to use any, frankly offensive, definition of “mental illness” as “emotional instability”, “lower intelligence”, or any of the other definitions commonly used, I would like to offer an alternative. What is & what isn’t considered as “mental illness” is dictated by the society in which an individual lives. Whilst there are biological differences in the brain’s chemistry for some of these “illnesses”, for example the amygdala of a psychopath does not function in the same way as that of a “normal” brain chemistry, the fact is not altered. Ultimately, any change in the chemistry of a brain results in a change in the individual’s mode of thinking, which then comes into conflict with societal definitions of sanity, or “mental health”. This means that definitions of “mental illness” are ideological; they are political.
As workers in a Capitalist society, the definition for our sanity results in engaging with the wage-labourer system, being part of this is what makes us “well”. This is not explicit, nor all-encompassing. There are many reasons that are given for individuals not engaging in the process, ranging from physical disability to “laziness” (currently manifesting in the ludicrous, ‘shirkers & strivers’). However, where it does most concretely manifest is in treatment & “mental health care”.
“Mental health care” under Capitalism serves the purpose of forcing those with mental differences back into the wage-labour system. A 2007 governmental survey gives an acute expression to this: ‘People who are workless and who have mental health problems, including those with a severe and enduring mental illness, should be given support to find and retain a job […] If they are not ready for paid employment, they should be assessed and offered help for the problems that would prevent them from working’ (p.42.). This same report also states that most common mental health disorders are caused by workplace stress.
Patients are targeted with therapy designed to remove ‘negative thoughts & actions’ from their lifestyles, by psychiatrists & other professionals who, ultimately, decided all of this treatment for the patient. The power relationship within this treatment is 1 of the many ways in which Capitalist hierarchy is reinforced. It also serves the purpose of placing the blame upon the patient: they are isolated, being helped by those who are, unquestionably, sane.
An example of this kind of therapy, common for many low intensity approaches, is cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). CBT actively identifies as attempting to control the thought processes of the patient. Whilst this is clouded in rhetoric about ‘identifying problems’ or ‘stopping negative patterns’, these problems & patterns are ideologically decided. The most common thoughts, or patterns, that patients are asked to identify when undergoing CBT are suicidal thoughts, social anxiety, anger &, for want of a better word, idleness. This is a direct form of social control, intending to quell any thoughts contrary to subservience & apathy. Once a worker is in work, this kind of therapy is a manner of maintaining the wage-labour relationship in a specific worker. Despite many patients undergoing CBT often complaining that they feel angry, anxious & even suicidal at work – especially with the rise of labour intensive call-centres – treatment focuses on coping with this alienation, rather than combating it. Essentially, treatment considers Capitalism as fixed construct, “the way things are”, & any divergence from this mentality is considered a malignant influence. As the above 2007 report makes it clear, ‘work is central to self-identity and to the way an individual is perceived by others’ (p.10). A flattering portrait of the unemployed – they have no identity.
Perhaps the most indicting literature published, that which shows clearly the role that therapy plays in our society & demonstrates the political character of diagnoses, is contained within the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). The current edition of the DSM-IV defines an ‘ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behaviour’ as part to a mental illness termed “oppositional defiance disorder”. The DSM-IV lists further symptoms: questioning authority, negativity, defiance, argumentativeness & being easily annoyed. To question the society we live in, in any manner, constitutes a “mental illness”.
A final word before we conclude. To compound the outlined issues, the propagandists of the Capitalist world has succeeded in thrusting a dichotomy upon those who have, at any point, suffered from “mental illness”. 1 is either “mentally ill”, or “mentally well”; there is no grey area. If 1 thinks about this in a logical sense, it is painfully preposterous. Time is an important factor &, throughout people’s lives, they shift between being “mentally well” and “mentally unwell” constantly. For those with chemical differences, they will too have periods of “mental health” & “mental illness”. This point may seem obvious but it is, however, important. This false dichotomy is the manner by which we are most likely to approach the concept of mental health; it is the approach most suitable to Capitalism as it presents us with an “other”, from whom we are distant & need not pay any attention to. We are presented with this in all the stereotypes used to define “mental illness” in the media – the murdering psychopath, the permanent depressive etc. This view is not dialectical. It is difficult to oust & must be constantly fought against. Ostensibly, we must reject outright any image of what a human being is meant to be & stand, without reserve, with the oppressed.
 ‘This worldwide carnage and exploitation by British imperialism is the basis for racism in Britain. Racism is nothing else than the systematic oppression of the indigenous population of the countries conquered and exploited by imperialism. The backwardness and poverty of these countries was explained, not, of course, by the plunder and exploitation of imperialism, but by a supposed natural inferiority of oppressed peoples. A racist ideology was developed in order to justify the barbaric treatment by imperialism of the people of oppressed nations. Racism is the necessary and inevitable result of imperialism and will only be defeated with the defeat of imperialism. Any struggle against racism in Britain which does not struggle against British imperialism will inevitably fail because it leaves the basis of racism untouched.’: Maxine Williams, Stephen Palmer, & Gary Clapton, ‘Racism, Imperialism and the Working Class’, Revolutionary Communist 9 (London: RCG Publications Ltd, 1979) [reproduced on revolutionarycommunist.org: http://goo.gl/6SlxJC].